DESPITE THE GORGEOUS DAY — the crisp air and the midday sun shining brightly — it felt like a funeral under the large oak where a few of the tenants of Lincoln Place Apartments in Venice had gathered. They held hands in a circle, silently watching the wind rake its fingers through the tall grass growing behind a chainlink fence where a home once stood. A hushed reverence fell over the small crowd as Pastor Tom, from the local United Methodist church, spoke. “As you walk around the property,” he instructed, “think about land, how we have a long human history of land being taken away, think about your own connection to the land as you walk through Lincoln Place, and let’s meet back here in 10 minutes.” Reverend Tom stared down at his cowboy boots, and took a few deep breaths before walking away from the oak and the tarped tents pitched behind the Ross department store.
This pilgrimage around the property has become part of a weekly vigil started by the Methodist minister and David Busch, a homeless community activist, to give some hope to the remaining 83 Lincoln Place households inhabited by elderly and handicapped residents. The eviction notices say they have to be out by March 20. AIMCO, a Denver-based company, bought out one of the largest affordable-housing complexes in Los Angeles and decided it would be more profitable to build luxury condos. Bill Rosendahl, city councilman for the 11th District, has fought for his residents, drawing up proposals to his fellow city council members, organizing meetings between AIMCO, the City Attorney’s Office and the tenants. Lincoln Place residents have claimed that the City Council has ignored them during meetings, some members refusing to look them in the eye. “They just sit there and eat their lunch while you’re talking,” said resident Frieda Marlin, 82. “They don’t care.” Last year, during one meeting, the City Council actually threw a football around while tenants waited to be heard. Another tenant claimed she heard Councilman Jack Weiss lecturing Rosendahl. Weiss was heard saying, “You’re anti-development, Bill, and that will hurt you.” Rosendahl said he couldn’t comment on what Weiss had said, because it happened during a closed meeting.
This is the biggest problem he’s encountered with the City Council — its penchant for closed meetings. “The public should see democracy in action. What are they afraid of?” said Rosendahl. “When meetings are closed, we can’t talk about what happened inside afterward. There’s no accountability.” Rosendahl says Lincoln Place is his No. 1 issue, and in the past he’s had a hard time getting support from other council members who don’t want to fight City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. Delgadillo has advised the council that AIMCO is within the law and nothing can be done to save the tenants for fear of litigation. According to Delgadillo spokesman Frank Mateljan, “The city attorney would like to discuss future mediation.” Some think it has more to do with the fact that AIMCO contributed thousands of dollars to Delgadillo’s campaign for attorney general. But according to Delgadillo’s spokesperson Jonathan Diamond, that “doesn’t make a bit of difference.”
Rosendahl’s latest effort involves a motion he introduced to City Council last Friday and will present to the Department of Planning that would require AIMCO to state publicly what it plans to do with the 38-acre property. The company has yet to officially abandon a tract map for redeveloping Lincoln Place with new condos and apartments that they had approved by the City. That map contained certain provisions including that the project would not “involuntarily displace any current Lincoln Place tenant.” AIMCO was supposed to sign a covenant and agreement, which so far it has failed to do. Rosendahl hopes that when the motion is returned to the City Council, they will vote for it and give him the political might to move Delgadillo to action.
Meanwhile, Delgadillo waits for future mediation. Tenants have camped on Delgadillo’s front lawn, protested in front of his office, and now, a little bit broken, they hold vigils at the edge of Lincoln Place.
The able-bodied residents, the ones who could find housing and work elsewhere, have been pushed out, but the next group to be evicted, this March, live on disability and Social Security. Many who have lived in the same apartment for more than 30 years are not only leaving their home, but will be forced out of their community, no longer able to afford life on the Westside. They can’t drive; some can barely walk. They’ll have to find new doctors and a new life in another part of town that is foreign to them. For the few seniors who have gathered at the vigil, this weighs heavily on their minds, but for others the fight is not over.
A few blocks away, at the Penmar Senior Center, a familiar scene unfolds. There are the same metal chairs, and the same construction-paper mermaids, left from a play put on by the day-care kids who share the space. There are the same faces — some are discussing, for the first time, the possibility that they may have to leave, and some are making their way to join the vigil. One younger resident yells out to them, “What is sitting in a circle going to do? We should be screaming on the streets. We should be wailing, making noise like Jimi Hendrix. We need action!” His reference seems lost on many of the older ladies who shuffle out. “Jimi who?” asks Frieda Marlin. She isn’t going to the vigil either. Lately, she’s been so distraught all she can do is listen to tapes a friend has given her; they contain recordings of her and her late husband at previous Lincoln Place rallies. This is the third time Marlin has been served with an eviction notice in the last 20 years, each time so that owners could redevelop the property where she lived. She won each time, but now she’s not so sure what will happen. “I like to listen to my husband fight on the tapes. I can hear him yelling, and I hear his words. It’s the only thing that helps me stay positive. I miss him so much. What am I going to do? I’m all alone.” Marlin fiddles with the tissue in her hand as she heads home.
Norma Booton, 71, isn’t going to the vigil either; she’s going to spend time with her great-granddaughter, who lives with her. Lately, her great-granddaughter has been scratching at her head so incessantly she created a large bald spot; the doctor said that the hair tugging was stress-related. “The doctor said she doesn’t want to move and change schools, she’s scared,” says Booton. “This is as bad as Katrina to me, this is a man-made disaster resulting in homeless families.”
Back at the vigil, the group has finished its pilgrimage around the property and gather in a circle to write thoughts on paper, then share them. Lucy Siam, 76, can barely speak through her tears; she thought of all the Sunday mornings for the last 32 years that she spent walking around this property and how she hopes those walks can continue. Her words dissolve into sobs. Next up is Tom, who says he thought of all the other places he lived but never stayed. “I finally found a community where I wanted to stay and put down roots. Everyone says ‘people don’t invest in where they live.’ Well, the average person is renting, not owning. Maybe if people didn’t live in fear of being kicked out at the whim of a developer, more people would invest in their communities.” A Venice local spotted the old clotheslines that were set up in a garden; they “were once a place where neighbors gathered to hang the wash, share their lives and their dreams. We don’t share our dreams anymore. We don’t know our neighbors. Lincoln Place has to go on as it is now, so that we have a model for how to do it again.”